The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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On Happiness

Louis Armstrong playing for the sphinx

Five minutes after it happened, Twitter was still in flames, cars were honking, bars were shaking like there’d been an earthquake, ESPN was breaking down in tears. If you spoke Spanish, or were my dad, there was a good chance you’d just heard this. Yahoo! Sports was crashing. My dad, who’s not really a soccer fan, was stuck in the car, couldn’t find the game on English-language radio, and spent 90 minutes trying to follow the Spanish commentary; he called me after the match to find out if what he thought had happened was real. But that was how everyone felt. It’s scary to think how things might have looked if anyone here cared about soccer.

This is a post about happiness and the things people say in voiceovers. That may be a letdown, or an erosion. But joy, the actual joy of being a fan, is an essential part of sports, and it’s something we haven’t written much about here, for various, obvious reasons. The whole topic of emotion has been so crushed out of shape by sportscasters that it’s basically just another beer ad, and most days, it’s well to one side of what this site is trying to do. Still, it matters, and there are days when a good feeling just hits you in the mouth.

I’ve been reading match reports—you know, the analytic, intelligent, fullbacks-were-used, the-universe-didn’t-explode-into-radiant-particles variety—and I have a feeling of simultaneously understanding them and not understanding them, like a patient who’s too drugged to follow his own diagnosis. There’s another order of reality, and it’s sheared off the top of the sky. It’s incandescent. I have a broken jaw, and all my perceptions are beautiful.

Anyway, that wasn’t a soccer game, in the same way that shattered glass isn’t a window. It a pile of jagged moments. Djebbour controlling the ball in the air and roundhousing it at the goal. Dempsey with his beaten lip. Yebda, his peroxide mohawk flashing in the floodlights, letting rip from 40 yards. Altidore smashing his way through the Algerian back line, a bowling ball in a bowling ball shop. Dempsey and Altidore swinging at the same ball, with flawless slapstick timing. Dempsey narrowly missing, Dempsey narrowly missing, Dempsey narrowly missing. That unchanging scoreline from the England game, while the time on the clock kept climbing. Finally, Tim Howard making the instantly legendary throw that opened up the American attack, Algeria frantically tracking back, Altidore crossing for Dempsey in the area, Dempsey just half-able to lay the ball off as M’Bohli smothered him, Donovan crashing into view, Donovan getting to the rebound, Donovan smashing it in.

It’s so easy to frame a list of reasons why you want to scream at a moment like that that it almost feels pointless to list them. Transcending alienation to achieve community through the ecstasy of simulated warfare, or acquiring a false sense of power over the universe through the realization of a wish, or whatever sublimated tribalism/tragedy of civilization thesis your advisor wants you to write. Or just the relief of unbearable suspense. These aren’t cliches, but they’re familiar enough mechanisms that you can be more or less conscious of them and of how they work in the instant you want to start screaming. Or I should say, simultaneously with the instant you hear yourself, because you’re screaming anyway, or at least I am, and you probably knock over a table, and when it’s clear that it’s real, it isn’t going to be called back for offside or a foul real or imagined or a ten-month-old Serena Williams foot fault, you probably start dancing like an idiot, whether alone or in company, or crying for no reason, or calling up everyone you know. Again, that power isn’t the only thing that matters in sports, there are other sources of significance, but it’s at the root of everything epic or mythical or poetic that sometimes appears in the game. Hold on, did I really say joy was to one side of what this site is all about?

The World Cup may be about competing visions of nationalism vaguely subsumed by a narrative of human unity, but yesterday said nothing about the American national character, unless, as Zach speculates, it was that America excels at incorporating influences. Winning a game isn’t inherently an act either of definition or of reception, and Michael Jordan’s shadow would fall off Landon’s shoulders like a coat twelve sizes too large. Still, in the unfiltered moment, maybe just because there’s a national filter at the World Cup, maybe because it’s what the crypto-fascist overlords who arrange these circuses want, you do perceive it as something to do with the country; you’re aware of who you’re celebrating with, at any rate. And because the classifying brain is irrational, the classifying brain gives it a specific historical context. It was a weird quote, but in the first, overjoyed moment after the goal, nothing made more sense than DaMarcus Beasley’s exclaiming, “We bring something to the table, the American people as a whole.” It was as if Louis Armstrong, Emily Dickinson, and Howard Hawks had come raining down in a crazy confetti on the grass.

Is there anything to take from all this? Probably only that sometimes, a gong crashes, or else we’re all just puppets. But it’s amazing how the most natural way to describe intense elation is by comparing it to violent disaster. You want to start talking, absurdly, about hurricanes and hailstorms, at what is legitimately a good moment in anyone’s life. If a weatherman told me tomorrow that a tornado of Donovan’s-goal proportions was bearing down on my house, I would think it was an appalling thing to say. But I would also run for cover, because I would know exactly what he meant.

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On Happiness

by Brian Phillips · June 24, 2010

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